Thursday 30 July 2009

55 - 'Spring Snow' by Yukio Mishima

There's something about Japanese writers. They have such an elegant way with words and paint amazing pictures with their prose, sweeping the reader into a world of the author's making, making them see what the writer sees in his imagination, setting a measured yet engrossing pace (either that, or they all have really, really good translators). And among these writers, one of the masters of the art is Yukio Mishima; and 'Spring Snow' must be among his best works.

In this novel, set in 1912-13, Mishima lays out a tragic love affair between Kiyoaki Matsugae, the son of a well-to-do family, and Satoko Ayakura, the daughter of members of the Japanese aristocracy. Through Kiyoaki's stubbornness and Satoko's teasing of the younger boy, the pair circle each other without penetrating the layers of reserve until Satoko has already been promised in marriage; the subsequent events lead them into a downward spiral resulting in their disappearance, in different ways, from Tokyo society.

That's basically it - 400 pages of star-crossed lovers. What makes it more than just a Mills and Boon romance, however, is Mishima's ability to paint the background of the story, and the principal actors, with such vividness that they seem to burst into technicolour in your mind (actually, technicolour would be too bright and garish - let's say watercolours instead). The Japanese are fond of reminding foreigners about their four seasons (and can be confused when those same foreigners seem particularly underwhelmed by this astounding piece of information), but it is true that the country does mark its seasons very distinctly, something that Mishima draws out in this book. From the famed cherry blossoms of spring, through the typhoon season to the sprouting greenery of a humid summer, the seasons march on with the multi-coloured mountains of Maple trees in the autumn giving way to the bare trees and swirling snow of winter and early spring (which, as you would guess from the title, marks some important events in the novel).

As well as being able to describe the natural world, Mishima is extremely adept at portraying the state of Japanese society at the time, just half-a-century after the forced end to the country's self-imposed seclusion (and only a few years after Japan became the first Asian country to defeat a major European power in battle in the Russo-Japanese war). Houses now have Japanese and Western rooms; students smoke cigarettes; the upper classes provide private screenings of the latest western films or play recordings of classical music. Despite this superficial move towards westernisation though, the traditional culture remains almost untouched. We are treated to views of private ceremonies celebrating traditional holidays, cherry-blossom-viewing parties and New Year's imperial poetry competitions; let us not forget that the Emperor was still regarded as a god at this time.

This shift from Japanese to Western cultures has also not extended to the morals the characters display over the course of the story. While the Christian west is motivated by guilt and may be prevented from acting by the thought that they are doing wrong, Asian cultures can be motivated more by shame and the possibility of people outside the family group finding out their secrets. Of course, as long as everyone keeps their silence, this will not happen, and everyone is happy. This behaviour, so contrary to many western beliefs (although strangely similar to the way the English upper classes often deal with scandals...), allows Kiyoaki and Satoko to continue with their affair, and helps the two families to cover it up once they have discovered the truth.

The third major character of the book, Kiyoaki's friend Shunsuke Honda, is also part of the web of cover ups and intrigues. Very different from his effete and uninterested friend, Honda, a hard-working student and future lawyer, is happy to be of service to Kiyoaki in his adventures, helping him several times to arrange illicit rendez-vous with Satoko. Eventually though, his conscience starts to prick him, and he has to face up to a dilemma familiar to anyone who has been asked to help a friend do things which they really shouldn't have: does he do what his friend wants, or what his friend actually needs? Honda's response to this problem shapes the way the plot eventually unfolds.

What really differentiates the book from similar western novels, however, is its central theme of Buddhism and, in particular, reincarnation. Throughout the tale, we see references to the religion, often in the shape of the Thai princes who have come to Japan to broaden their horizons (which mainly seems to consist of smoking and messing around with local girls). Honda's discussions about the nature of reincarnation with the princes and his study of Buddhism-based ancient Asian law lead us nicely through the ideas which will be explored later on, namely is it really reincarnation if the reborn soul is unaware of past lives?

And now, dear reader, I can hear you asking yourself 'Later on? What's he talking about?', and, yes, it may seem a little odd until you hear that 'Spring Snow' is merely the first in Mishima's quadrilogy of books making up 'The Sea of Fertility' cycle. Before his untimely death (which I mentioned briefly in my earlier post on 'Forbidden Colours'), Mishima wrote one last set of novels, with (as far as I'm aware) the theme of reincarnation at the heart of them. What does that mean? That after finishing a truly wonderful book, I'm still only a quarter of the way through the story. Now that's something to be very happy about.

Saturday 25 July 2009

54 - 'Our Fathers' by Andrew O'Hagan

Once upon a time (as my daughter insists every story should begin - even if it's from the local newspaper), I bought a book for $5 at Borders, put it in my one of my many bookcases and promptly forgot about it. Could happen to anyone. Recently, it caught my attention (I'm not sure how; it wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary), and I put it on my pile of books to read - i.e. books I haven't read yet. As I got it out, I noticed on the cover that it had been short-listed for the Booker Prize - the major British literary prize which is open to novels written in English by Commonwealth authors (no Americans allowed) - in 1999, which made me think I'd give it a go.

Now comes the twist in the tale. One of the inspirations for my deciding to start this very book blog was an example I found via Facebook, a wonderful blog created by a Canadian by the name of Colleen Shea, and, having recently rediscovered this site, I decided to browse through some old posts. Now Colleen, who seems to have a lot in common with me in terms of book taste (apart from a liking for mediaeval French literature which I don't really share), also started off with the whole 50-Book Challenge, and one of the posts listed her favourite and not-so favourite books of the year. Guess where 'Our Fathers' ended up...

Whether a masterpiece or a pile of rubbish, however, 'Our Fathers' was always going to ring true with me. A tale of disillusionment and anger set amongst the soaring tower blocks of Glasgow and Ayr, the book focuses on the lives of Jamie Bawn, his alcoholic father, Robert, and Jamie's grandfather, Hugh, a social reformer who single-handedly pushes the adoption of high-rise flats to replace Glasgow's seedy tenements. In a neat twist of fate, with the concept of cheap, mass housing in tower blocks consigned to history, Jamie is now responsible for tearing down the very buildings his granddad put up.

This sense of disillusionment with what has come before, extends to the country as a whole. While Hugh, and many old men like him (including one of Jamie's teachers), rage blindly against the wrong done to the Scots by the English and drown their centuries-old grievances in whisky, song and Robbie Burns' poetry, others attempt to get on with their lives in a country which is struggling to come to terms with its identity. For this reason, Jamie, now living in Liverpool, feels awkward on his return north of the border, abused as 'soft' by his granddad and other men he encounters, different by virtue of having crossed over to live with the 'auld enemy'.

In fact, Jamie, like his country of birth, seems to have put his life on hold. Unwilling to commit to a relationship (or a family), it takes his trip home to show him that change is possible. Over the few months he spends with Hugh during his final illness, Jamie changes, both in terms of his attitude towards his grandfather (and his grandfather's flawed vision of 'cities in the sky') and his decision to move on, as both his mother and estranged father have managed to do.

To be fair, the ideas and people in this book were always going to resonate with me. As a mid-thirties ex-patriate with a Celtic background (and memories of a hell of a lot of drinking), it was extremely easy (sometimes frighteningly so) to put myself into Jamie's shoes. Were it not for the fact that the journey from Melbourne to Coventry takes just a little bit longer than Jamie's train ride from Liverpool to Glasgow, this is a trip which I could well see myself making. And where do I live now? In the sleepy Melbourne suburb of Berwick, named after the Scottish city in which a certain Jamie Bawn was born...

However, before you all decide that in the case of Booker v Blogger, the jury has unanimously found in favour of the plaintiff, I should, in fairness, address the case for the defence. Leaving aside my emotional involvement, the story did drag a little at times, and I can see how, for someone less personally involved in the events, the book might be hard to get into. I also thought that the writing, at times, was very subject-verb-object-full stop; anyone who has ever attempted to follow my tortured, relative-clause-laden writing (and that means you, dear reader!) will understand that I like my prose a little more florid than that.

Still, I'm giving this a thumbs up for now, despite the reservations noted above. It's always interesting to read a book which touches on themes and places close to your heart (which isn't always the case with my Russian classics and contemporary Japanese novels). Next time I go back to my home country, I'll have Jamie's story in mind. Not to get me to change anything in my life (we're not that similar); just to remind me to be nice to my family. Now if that's the only thing I get from this book, then it was well worth the $5.

Thursday 23 July 2009

53 - 'Kitchen' by Banana Yoshimoto

I like bananas. I take one to work with me in a lunchbox every day (the banana's in the lunchbox, I'm not; that would be weird). They are a wonderful source of potassium (which I'm sure I have a use for, even if if it eludes me at present), they give you a wonderful boost of energy when it's 3.00, and knocking-off time seems aeons away, and, most importantly, they come in their own, portable, bio-degradable wrapper. Brilliant. It really is a stupid name though.

Which leads me nicely (some might say predictably, but that's 'cause they're just mean, and I'm not listening) to Banana Yoshimoto, the exotically-named Japanese author of my latest literary delight, 'Kitchen'. Obviously, 'Banana' is not Ms. Yoshimoto's birth name (she changed it from 'Strawberry'), but that is the one she thought would best suit her personality. Which really says all you need to know about her.

Despite her rather cheery pseudonym, Yoshimoto's debut novel - actually a two-part novella followed by a short story - is really rather short on smiles. In 'Kitchen', Mikage Sakurai moves in with a casual acquaintance, Yuichi Tanabe, after the death of her grandmother, and the poor girl struggles through the loss of the last family member she had left. Both Mikage and Yuichi have to learn to get over their repective losses before their lives can start again. In 'Moonlight Shadow', Satsuki is mourning the loss of her boyfriend, Hiroshi, when a chance meeting with a strange woman, Urara, gives her the opportunity to find a way past her emotional blockage. Not happy stories.

Both tales address the big questions of life: What's it all about? What happens when you lose a loved one? How do you keep going? Both Mikage and Satsuki find it difficult to adjust to a changed world and doubt they possess the strength to continue an empty life, but both are helped to move on by the new friends they find; for the first time, the girls confront the truth that relationships can be ephemeral and that life is more a series of friendships than one life-long set of relationships.

I bet you're still not sure what I actually thought about this book (and you wouldn't be the only ones), so I'll put your minds at rest; I liked it. But. Just as I'm in two minds about bananas, at least when it comes to the name, I'm still not completely convinced by Ms. Yoshimoto's writing. For one thing, as I previously alluded to, the two stories in this book are very similar in theme, and, at times, I really couldn't feel any difference between the two characters. Mikage could have been Satsuki, and Satsuki could have been Mikage (except for the fact that Mikage did a lot more cooking); just as some people criticise Haruki Murakami for writing the same characters over and over again, Yoshimoto seems to write very one-dimensional people.

However, the biggest problem I have with our little Banana is that her writing seeems to be schizophrenic in the split between description and dialogue. Many's the time (in this book and in 'Goodbye Tsugumi' and 'Amrita') I have been lulled into a state of comfortable numb enjoyment by Yoshimoto's work, only to receive a rude awakening from her wretched, childish dialogue. This may be deliberate (many of the characters are teenagers); it may be an issue with the translator (unfortunately, my Japanese isn't good enough for me to be able to check this any time soon); it could well just be an aversion on my part to what I consider to be overly-American jargon in the dialogue. Whatever it is, it makes me cringe at times, and that's a shame because I do like the ideas behind her books.

Please don't be put off by the last couple of paragraphs; it's sometimes easier to write about the negatives than the positives, and there is a lot of good reading to be had in this short work. Give Banana a go, and I'm sure you won't regret it. Just be aware that in amongst the sumptuous yellow flesh, just as in a banana, you may find some squashy blackish bits. Yuck.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

52 - 'Das Versprechen' by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Back in April, I read two slightly unusual detective novels by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, one of my favourite discoveries from my German studies, but he actually wrote a third... OK, I think you're with me now.

The third detective novel is called 'Das Versprechen' ('The Promise') and takes place in post-war Zürich. In a story within a story, a famous writer on a book tour meets a retired police Captain who, not thinking much of the way his metier is portrayed in fiction, decides to educate the novellist in real police work. While driving the writer back to Zürich, the policeman relates a story about a former employee who tried to act like a character in a novel and instead found his whole existence crumbling around him.

The policeman's story centres on Lieutenant Matthäi and his insistence on continuing the search for a little girl's murderer, even after the main suspect, a travelling salesman with a prior conviction for sexual molestation, admitted to carrying out the attack, before hanging himself in his police cell. At first, his colleagues refuse to believe that a mistake has been made; however, through the use of ever-so-slightly unethical tactics, Matthäi manages to lure the real murderer into his carefully-laid trap. And that's where real life starts to have an influence...

Matthäi's inhuman persistence in the face of wide-spread scepticism hangs on the promise he made to the mother of the murdered Gritli Moser. Unable to ignore the doubts he harbours about the confession of a convenient scapegoat, Matthäi forces himself to continue the hunt for the real murderer, despite the effect the chase is having on his life. In the end, a prediction made by a psychologist he consults about the case comes chillingly true; unable to find the murderer, he only finds madness.

As mentioned above, Matthäi was actually on the money, and the real murderer is tempted to stalk the cute eight-year old girl that Matthäi uses for bait (told you it was unethical...), so where does it all go so wrong? As in Dürrenmatt's earlier novels, it is luck, or rather misfortune, that provides the twist in the tail. While little Annemarie sits waiting for her fateful encounter with a child molester (and half the Zürich police hide in the bushes), the potential murderer has already met his fate. At the end of the book, we learn that he died in a car crash on the way to the secene of the crime... After a week of stake-outs, the police lose patience and leave Matthäi to his fate; for the poor unfortunate genius, this consists of drinking, smoking and waiting for a murderer who will never appear.

For such a short book with a fair amount of action, the writer is able to build the tension to unbearable levels, with the reader feeling the urgency of Matthäi and his captain as they lie in wait for the murderer. Annemarie sits and waits, the policemen hide and watch, Annemarie sings the same song over and over again, nobody comes, Annemarie plays with her doll... for days the policemen watch and wait until, finally, one of them cracks; then, the remaining detectives begin to shout and scream at the poor girl, demanding she tell them all she knows. Under the unbearable pressure of the wait, the girl's protectors become the ones she needs protection from.

This tension is also evident in the final part of the book when Frau Schrott, an old lady on her death bed, summons the captain to tell him something important before her death. Through her meandering nothings about her family and her various marriages, she stretches the story (and the captain's nerves) to breaking point, leaving the reader breathless in her slow, measured progression to the part about the murderer. Only when she reveals the truth about her husband, the murderer, and the events leading up to his death, does the reader finally learn that Matthäi was both right and terribly, terribly wrong.

It is Matthäi's character which reinforces the effects of his investigation. Unable to adapt to unforeseen events, he continues in the path he has taken, which should, logically speaking, lead him to his goal. However, life has a funny way of meddling with even the best-laid plans; while fictional detectives usually get their man in the end, in real life luck can intervene to stop you achieving your goals, no matter how well you have prepared.

At the end of the novel, there are some very poignant lessons to be learned from Matthäi's downfall. Firstly, expect the unexpected. Life cannot be micro-planned; something will always get in the way of your best intentions. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, be very careful with what you say. Never, ever, make a promise that you may not be able to keep. Who knows what may happen to you if you can't keep your word...

Sunday 19 July 2009

51 - 'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie

I believe that I left you, dear reader, on the precipice of a cliffhanger (if such a thing is possible) while I hurried to complete Salman Rushdie's superlative novel, 'Midnight's Children', and, having waited for a few days for the answer to my question, I'm sure you won't mind waiting for a few hundred words more. Such is life (as a famous Australian criminal is reported to have said...).

Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of August, 1947, shares his time of birth with the country of India itself. Almost thirty-one years later, exhausted by fate, he sits in a Bombay pickle factory with his would-be lover, Padma, recounting the history of his family, how he came to be born, and the effect his life, and those of the other Indian children born in the first hour of the country's independence, had on national affairs. On a vast canvas, Saleem paints a picture of a country struggling to find its identity and a boy struggling to come to terms with his destiny as a mirror of the nation's fate. And a very big nose...

This is a big book. Yes, I've read longer novels, but this has a hell of a lot crammed into its 647 pages, a portrait of a young, yet ancient country, which strays into the magical realism territory of books such as 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and 'Kafka on the Shore' while evoking experiences of the sub-continent so powerful that even someone who has never been near India can smell the streets of Bombay and see the crystal Kashmir lakes. One of the great tricks Rushdie pulls off in this novel is making the different scenes in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh come alive. Saleem's nose acts as a guide for the reader through not only the worldly smells of excrement, perspiration and naan, but also the more subtle aromas of bitterness, betrayal and danger.

The children of midnight of the title, the 1001 children born in the first hour of India's independence, are supernatural beings, with powers beyond those possessed by ordinary humans. Saleem, who accesses his telepathic powers after a series of childhood accidents, is able to connect with the other children and organises a nightly meeting, the Midnight's Children Conference (M.C.C. - an acronym which will raise an eyebrow of any Commonwealth citizen among you...) in the hope of harnessing the powers of the children for the good of the nation. However, there is a traitor in their midst, and the children of midnight are doomed from the start...

So what does Salman Rushdie have in common with Forrest Gump and Hiro Nakamura? Not a lot, obviously: having written a book of this magnitude, there's no way the author has an I.Q of 75, and I'm pretty sure that his temporal manipulation abilities are not that flash. However, by now, patient reader, I'm sure you will have started to see the connection between Hiro Nakamura, the time-travelling Japanese salaryman in the T.V. show 'Heroes', and the array of characters in this novel. In fact, with a time-traveller, a telepath, a boy who can walk through mirrors, a traitor and a government with a desire to eradicate the powers of superhuman beings, it's hard to imagine that the show's writers didn't have a well-thumbed copy of Mr. Rushdie's book on their desk when creating the concept. The idea of the Widow seems especially reminiscent of 'Heroes' sinister governmental interference in the lives of the central characters (although 'X-Men' deals with similar themes).

This Widow, based on a real political figure (saying who would spoil the story a little!), is also involved in the second allusion of my previous post. Just as Forrest Gump lives his life in the shadow of American politics, shaking hands with presidents and living through wars, so too does Saleem become involved in the dramatic events of the Indian post-colonial era. From being the accidental instigator of Bombay's language riots and a witness to West Pakistan's military coup, to being present during the invasion of East Pakistan and the eventual birth of an independent Bangladesh, Saleem's fate really does seem linked to that of his homeland, and it is precisely for this reason that the Widow and her brood of helpers make the decision to eliminate the problem of the Midnight Children (under cover of the Emergency period of the mid-seventies).

It all seems a bit fantastical and far-fetched (and it is!), but Rushdie holds it all together, thanks mainly to the interaction between our narrator, Saleem, and his disbelieving (but eager to hear the story) listener, Padma. Saleem himself admits that certain aspects of his story are not true, contradicting himself and forgetting vital information while Padma interrupts, questions and rubbishes the child of midnight when he gets too big for his boots, or when the story takes a turn too incredible for her liking. In doing so, she takes our part, asking the questions we would ask of the story-teller, raising an eyebrow when we start to get restless. In short, we are Padma (with less chutney).

After almost 650 pages of mesmerising yarn spinning, Saleem's story ends unfinished, with an empty chutney jar ready for the last instalment of his life, the final chapter in the life of this Midnight Child yet to be written. However, we know that the story goes on; another generation of magical beings is set to take over from the first, just as in the more mundane outside world, sons take over from fathers (or mothers...). Whole in itself, yet hinting at a lot, lot more, Rushdie's superb novel has created a story, and character, to rival anything Hollywood has to offer; very apt for a work set largely in Bombay, the centre of the Indian film industry. This sub-continental Forrest Gump has taught us that while life may be a box of chocolates, it's infinitely more interesting if you add a spot of lime-green chutney. And a large dollop of imagination.

Friday 17 July 2009

While you're waiting...

Apologies for the delay; currently reading 'Midnight's Children', and it's a fair few hundred pages. But what do Salman Rushdie, Forrest Gump and Hiro Nakamura have in common?

You'll just have to wait to find out... :)

Friday 10 July 2009

50 - 'The Complete Polysyllabic Spree' by Nick Hornby

Hurray! 50 Not Out! (I am now strolling around the room raising my non-existent cricket bat in salute to the equally non-existent crowd; I take this challenge very seriously...). Avoiding the rather obvious choice of 'War and Peace' to bring up the milestone (too cliched. And long.), I thought it would be fun to use the milestone to think about what I've learned this year by reading Nick Hornby's collection of magazine columns, 'The Complete Polysyllabic Spree', and finding out what old Nick feels about this reviewing lark.

You see, despite being touted as review columns, Hornby's pieces have just as much to do with him and the whole idea of reading, writing and reviewing as with talking about any particular book. Which was a blessing as, to tell you the truth (and I'm nothing if not truthful - O.K., slight fib), I didn't really love this book as much as I thought, or hoped, I would. One of the problems was that the columns were aimed at an American audience and dealt with a host of books which I'd never heard of and which didn't really sound that interesting. I know I can't expect authors to write books with me in mind (although I'm hopeful that Haruki Murakami will get back to me about the pitch I sent him involving cats, wells, loneliness and my local football team), but I struggled to stay interested in his brief descriptions of novels he picked up whilst on book tours in small-town USA.

Now the stuff about writing, that I could relate to. In the introduction, Hornby talks about the effect taking on a book review column had on his literary intake, noting that where before he would take time out between books and read newspapers and magazines instead, he now felt compelled to close one book and open the next in the same action (which is a very cool trick if you can pull it off. I tried it, but I just ended up with two books face down on the floor). In addition, because of the happy-happy joy-joy nature of the magazine, which prohibited any kind of slagging off of books (apparently there are already enough literary reviews which specialise in crushing writers' confidence), Hornby was encouraged to only read books he was 100% sure he'd love - if he hated them, he couldn't actually mention the name of the book, or the author, in his column...

Those of you with long memories, or an ability to spot hyperlinks, may recall that the reason I started this blog was linked to taking on the Fifty-Book Challenge, and one result of that challenge has been that I've been reading like mad all year. I now find it hard to imagine a stage of being between books, a sort of literary inter-regnum (inter-librum?); to misquote the Royal Family's announcement, "The book is dead. Long live the book!". The fact that I have a full-time job, a part-time Master's course, a hyper-active (but loveable) two-year-old daughter and a long-suffering wife (who now says the word 'blogging' with the contempt you'd usually bestow on infamous war criminals) has not managed to come between me and a good book. Or 50.

Another issue with writing is (and this may come as a big shock to some people) that other people out there in the vast space that is the world-wide interweb thingy actually take the time to read what you write. And then hate you for it. Just as Mr. Hornby has had to bite his tongue on the orders of the (wholly fictional) massed ranks of the Polysyllabic Spree, so too have I had to think twice about what I want to say in case I offend someone who happens to stumble across my blog. This is especially important because I am essentially a product of my culture and my upbringing, something which helps to style my reviews, and many of the people who read my amateurish waffle are not (actually, that covers pretty much everyone apart from my brother and sister). That is to say, it's incredibly easy to offend someone without even trying. And that really concerns me. I really would like to know when I'm offending someone; it makes life much easier.

Of course, the most worrying thought I had while reading 'The Spree' was that if Hornby, one of my favourite writers, was capable of losing me for good parts of his writing, how could I expect to hold the interest of anyone outside my immediate family (and some of them are already a lost cause)? Do other people really care about what I'm reading? If so, why? A while back I read Kafka's 'Der Prozess' (The Trial), and I spent hours on an elaborate parody of a Kafkaesque situation in lieu of a formal review. Having applied the final touches, I sat back and waited for the comments to roll in. Ten minutes later, I remembered to publish it and went away to do something more useful instead. A week later, crushed and licking my wounds, I got on with my life, having seen my most painstaking effort at a piece of writing ever simply ignored by the whole world. Six-and-a-half-billion people; not even my wife read it.

Naturally, now I realise that:
a) Only about 12 people know my blog exists.
b) Very few of those people will have read the book.
c) Why would anyone read a book review which tells the uninitiated absolutely nothing about the book, or the author, which can be deciphered without a specialised university course?
d) It probably wasn't anywhere near as good as I thought. Now, that really hurts.

So, yes, hurray for me, 50 not out and all that. However, as the imaginary crowd settles back into its collective seat, and I get ready to face the next book, I have to start thinking about the blog and my insatiable reading drive. Why am I really doing this? What is possessing me to spend as much of my spare time as humanly possible reading and then scribbling down my responses in blog form?

No, seriously, that was a real question...

Wednesday 8 July 2009

49 - 'The Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton

On a Facebook group I frequent, there was once a thread discussing the relative merits of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. Not having read anything by Wharton, I refrained from commenting (unlike the carriageful of Austenites who used the thread as another excuse to praise Saint Jane to the skies), but I was interested by the few comments which actually mentioned the American author. So, when I was idly looking around my local campus bookshop... well, I think we all know where this is heading by now.

Having now read 'The Age of Innocence', I can sort of see why the comparison with Austen was made. The writer describes the close-knit society of 1870s New York with a similar scrutiny to Austen's view of the home counties at the start of the nineteenth century, penetrating the veil of breeding and form and observing the way people who don't really need (or want) to work spend their days. Just as a handsome soldier or blushing debutante were able to set tongues wagging in deepest Surrey, so too is the arrival of the prodigal daughter, Ellen Olenska, the catalyst for a thousand (mostly scandalous) private conversations in the American metropolis.

The differences, however, are far more intriguing. Unlike Austen's race-to-the-matrimonial-finish-line relationships, the happy couple in Wharton's book begin the story as newly affianced lovers, a point where their relationship begins (for the first time, perhaps...) to become interesting. On meeting and talking to the newly arrived Ellen, the cousin of his fiancee May, Newland Archer begins to examine the stifling social structure surrounding him through new eyes and starts to wonder whether he really wants to get married at all. The more he gets to know Ellen, and the more he becomes involved in fighting for her cause against the massed ranks of his new relatives, the less certain he is of his place in New York's fashionable milieu.

As Newland ponders the surroundings he has taken for granted all his life, the reader is sucked into seeing events through his (newly troubled) eyes. When, later in the book, we get the first hints of secrets being kept from our hero, this viewpoint renders the surprise we feel even more abrupt. Throughout the novel, Newland believes that he is in control of his actions, trying desperately to make the decision to break with his family and friends to be with the woman he really loves; it is only at the dinner party to send Ellen on her way back to Europe that he (and the reader) realises that there is no such thing as a secret among New York's upper echelons - and that there is very little chance of his being able to extricate himself from the position he has been groomed for from the cradle.

In fact, despite his constant protests about his fate, Newland may not be as different as he, and the writer, would have us believe. There are several hints to his normality, his 'averageness', in his behaviour, which he would have us consider as unique and different. Even when he is on the verge of running away with Ellen, he feels that their case cannot be compared to the tawdry affairs of his acquaintances; in fact, society knows (but decides to discreetly ignore) about his commonplace pulling against the reins of polite society. What seems like a frustrated rebellion against his family and friends may actually just be the normal doubts of a married man in an era where sex before marriage was not even to be hinted at.

To return to the comparison of Wharton with other authors, this novel brought to mind another English writer, one who wrote about London society at the same era as that of 'The Age of Innocence'. In his Palliser novels, and the excellent 'The Way We Live Now', Anthony Trollope neatly captured the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the day but was also able to accurately reflect the start of a change in the way people went about their daily lives. Just as Ellen Olenska causses turmoil in Manhattan, so too does Lizzie Eustace in 'The Eustace Diamonds'; the notorious bankrupt Julius Beaufort, a minor character in Wharton's novel, is reminiscent of the 'Great Financier' Augustus Melmotte in 'The Way We Live Now'. In comparison, Austen's tales of the rural upper-middle classes can seem a little tame and lacking in substance.

Twenty-odd years on from the bulk of the action in the book, Newland Archer looks back upon his youthful escapades, happy with his married life but still nursing regrets about what could have been. It is easy for the reader to see his marriage of convenience as a sham and to think that this kind of societal pressure is no longer possible; in the West, at least, this kind of semi-arranged marriage is no longer the norm. However, the ties that our community constricts us with are perhaps no less real today than in the New York of Wharton's novel. Can we really say that when we act we pay no regard to the possible reactions of our family and closest friends? In spite of the long gap separating our time from that of the unfortunate Newland Archer, the truth is that we can often be under as much unseen pressure as Edith Wharton's hero.

Saturday 4 July 2009

48 - 'Sputnik Sweetheart' by Haruki Murakami

As any regular Murakami reader knows, the Japanese author likes to alternate between slightly odd short stories, big mind-boggling novels, and short novels which, in their own way, are just as nutty as the rest of his writing. 'Sputnik Sweetheart', at 220-something pages, falls into the last category and, like most Murakami works, sucks the reader in with a perfect description of the everyday before blind-siding them with something a little more, shall we say, bizarre.

The narrator of the story, K. (another hint of Murakami's love of Kafka), is in love with an ex-college friend, Sumire, who in turn is in love with her new boss, Miu, who isn't in love with anyone, not even her husband, because of a strange event in her life fourteen years ago. After Sumire flies off to Europe on a business trip with Miu, K. gets on with his life, as most Murakami male protagonists do, with classical music, simple home cooking, enjoyable but meaningless affairs and the odd drink too. Then he gets a phone call from Europe, and everything comes crashing down...

The central premise may seem like an ordinary love triangle, but the writer turns it into something more. The three main characters are all loners who have trouble defining their identity, and the relationships they enjoy with each other are a way to start to understand what they want. K. serves as a sounding board for Sumire's constant inquisitiveness, and Sumire helps to get K. to see things from another's point of view, something he's not always very good at doing by himself. When Miu comes along, Sumire is instantly smitten and temporarily abandons her bohemian lifestyle and attempts to become a writer, following Miu to see where the trail will lead.

The connections the three characters have are strong, yet it is always clear that they are ultimately temporary, likely to end soon, and this is one of the writer's key points. In life, people are very much like satellites; while we may occasionally cross paths and accompany each other for a while, we are all alone in the end, trying to understand who exactly we are. When we do meet a kindred spirit, it can be earth shattering and life changing, and it's very easy, especially when we're young, to think that the current situation will go on forever, sometimes leading you to take a once-in-a-lifetime experience for granted. As K. and Miu find out, it rarely does. Like the song goes, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone...

Of course, with Murakami, it's never quite as simple as all that. On top of the nostalgia of lost relationships, 'Sputnik Sweetheart' also deals with a more sinister side of the search for identity. Each of the three central characters experiences a moment where the line between the real world and the imaginary world is blurred, a dangerous time where, if you don't take care, you may end up on the wrong side of the line when the gap closes. Miu's experience on the ferris wheel (the essence of which scene Dan Holloway says he has spent his last two books trying to capture), whether a supernatural moment or a painful psychological projection of self during an unwanted sexual encounter, leaves her empty, broken, unable to function in the real world any more. K., rather more down-to-earth than the others, manages to avoid falling across the line, but is left wondering why he bothered. As for Sumire, well, we'll probably never know.

This book reminds me a little in its themes of 'Norwegian Wood', even if that book is a little more rose-coloured in its portrayal of relationships past (well, vaguely rose-coloured; Murakami is never happy-happy, joy-joy). Most of us can remember times in the past, at school or university, where we met someone with similar interests to us for the first time, and everything just clicked. Many of us are still wondering where that relationship went wrong. Murakami tells us in this book that it's normal for these relationships to fizzle out and for friends to go their separate ways; the satellites cross paths, communicate briefly, then continue their different lonely paths around the earth.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

47 - 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy

So, a man walks into a pub with his wife and their daughter and says that he'll sell the wife off to the highest bidder. Then a sailor walks in, slaps five guineas on the table and says, "I'll take you up on that mate, no worries". The first man (slightly perturbed to meet an Australian in an English literature classic) mulls it over and takes the money, and the sailor, the woman and the child leave the pub. This is not a joke; this is the set-up for the Thomas Hardy novel 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'.

We rejoin Michael Henchard, the man with the slightly relaxed attitude to marital ties, in the town of Casterbridge, where he is now the Mayor. Almost twenty years of hard work and abstinence from alcohol (you didn't think he was sober when he sold off his wife, did you?) has enabled him to rise to a respectable place in rural society, an effort which is, in effect, an attempt at atonement for his youthful faux-pas. Having failed to locate his wife after sobering up the day after the 'sale', you can imagine his surprise when his daughter pays him a slightly unexpected visit. Reunited with his family, he swiftly 'courts' and remarries his wife, whose other husband is presumed lost at sea, but, from that moment on, his success in life begins to fade away; one by one, other ghosts reappear from the past to haunt the powerless Henchard until he is forced to leave Casterbridge the same way he arrived, as a wandering labourer.

Henchard is portrayed throughout as aggressive, arrogant, headstrong and jealous, yet Hardy's novel was sub-titled 'The Life and Death of a Man of Character', suggesting that the reader is meant to sympathise in some way with the main character. While it may seem difficult, having glanced through my review, to understand how Henchard could possibly be seen in a sympathetic light, on closer reading of the book, he does have many redeeming features. He is generous, quick to make friends and loyal to those who support him (and honourable to a fault in his dealings both with his former and latter wife, and the woman who almost replaced her). A lesser man may have fallen less quickly (or not at all), but the same stubborness which shows itself negatively can also be turned to a steadfast belief in what is right over what is comfortable for him.

Of course, in today's society, family dramas are perhaps not as big an issue as they were for the highly moral (or secretly depraved and publicly hypocritical...) Victorians, but as followers of politics could tell you, any hint of a less-than-spotless past can have a huge effect on the career of a public figure, especially if it only comes to light decades after the original mishap. Hardy describes the tribulations of Henchard and his former lover, Lucetta, noting that the fact of their sins being long unknown (through being committed outside the realm of Casterbridge) is greatly to their disadvantage; youthful indiscretions are much more likely to be forgiven by people who have had years to get used to them and to measure them against subsequent actions.

Whether you're planning to be a hay trusser or a state M.P., one lesson you can learn from this book is that while it's a long way to the top (as AC/DC once remarked), it's actually a lot faster on the downhill stretch. Anything that happens in your life, no matter how stupid or insignificant it can seem at the time, may well come back to bite you on the behind twenty-odd years down the track (something to consider for those of you with particularly embarrassing photos on your Facebook page...). However, there is something else that we can all learn from Hardy's excellent novel; never, no matter how mad, or drunk, you are at the time, should you attempt to sell your partner (not even if it happens to be legal wherever you are at the time). I can guarantee that it will not end well.

And if you must, at least get your exchange policy sorted out in case the buyer wants their money back.